By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – In the world of women’s college volleyball, Jelena Novakovic essentially went from one extreme to the other.
In the summer of 2015, she joined a powerful Penn State program that was coming off its second consecutive NCAA title. During Novakovic’s two seasons with the Nittany Lions, they were unable to capture the program’s eighth NCAA championship but still finished 28-7 and 24-10, respectively.
A significant change followed for Novakovic, a 6-3 right-side hitter from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. In 2017, she transferred to the University of Virginia, where consistent success has eluded the volleyball program over the past decade.
After posting a 7-25 record in 2016, the Cavaliers sputtered again last fall, winning only three ACC matches and finishing 7-24 overall.
“Obviously, you play to win,” Novakovic recalled, “so it was not easy, but then I always try to look at some positives.”
In some matches, UVA faced an opponent that was clearly more talented, Novakovic said. In others, though, the Wahoos built leads in sets and matches and, if not for lapses, could have turned those into victories.
“We’d be up 2-1, and then we would lose the match,” she said. “Or we’d win the first set and be winning, I don’t know, 18-14 in the second, and then we’d just kind of let it go.”
As painful as the experience was for Novakovic and her teammates, it taught them valuable lessons, she said. “Maybe we needed to go through that as a group to see how much more we have to give … We’ve definitely grown a lot this spring and preseason.”
Novakovic has two seasons of eligibility remaining, and she’s determined to help put the Cavaliers’ program back on solid footing. As a redshirt sophomore last year, she led the ‘Hoos in kills, with 289, and was third in blocks, with 50.
“I think it was an OK season,” she said, “but I think I can still do a lot better. I’m very self-critical, so I always look back at the moments and say, ‘Maybe I could have turned around this match.’ “
UVA head coach Aaron Smith said Novakovic’s adjustment to a new program was smooth last year.
“She’s such a quality human being, so humble and hard-working, that she fit in pretty much right away,” Smith said. “There wasn’t much need for a transition. But now that she has become more comfortable and confident, she’ll have a bigger role.
“Last year she showed glimpses of leadership, just with the way she is and the way she carries herself on the court. This year it’s much more so. She is a year older. The girls on the team look to her to make the big play and sometimes speak up and say the right thing as well.”
The Cavaliers open the season this weekend at a tournament in Ames, Iowa, where they’ll play Mississippi, Oregon State and Iowa State. Their home opener is Sept. 7 against Youngstown State at Memorial Gymnasium, which, to the delight of players, coaches and fans, will soon be air-conditioned.
The core of last year’s team returned, and UVA has added three freshmen, plus sophomore Christine Jarman, an outside hitter who had 249 kills last season for Alabama.
Novakovic has played for the Serbian junior national team, and that experience, coupled with her time at Penn State, has given her “an expectation of success, winning, and she is not afraid to call somebody out,” Smith said.
“But she does it in a way that the team responds. You get some upperclassmen that are high on their heels because they feel like they’re the upperclassmen and they can say whatever it is they want. But when she does it, there’s a little pull to it. People hear it. When they know that Jelana’s upset, they know they’ve got to pick it up, because it means something coming from her.”
In Serbia, Novakovic played Red Star Belgrade, a club with a proud tradition. Not until late in her senior year of high school did she decide to come to the United States for college. She’d never been to the U.S. and knew little about how sports worked at the NCAA level, but she sent highlight videos to many schools, hoping one would offer her a scholarship.
Penn State was among those that did so. When she learned that the Nittany Lions were two-time defending NCAA champions and “wanted me to join their team, that was just an incredible opportunity,” Novakovic said.
Hampered by injuries, she redshirted in 2015. The next season, she played in only four matches, after which, Novakovic said, “I realized this is not really a place I wanted to be in the first place. Academics were always important to me, so I was trying to look for a school that has a really good athletic program and also academics.”
This time around, Novakovic was determined to make a more-educated decision. “It was really important to me to meet the players and see how the school is,” she said.
She visited Rice, St. John’s, William & Mary and Baylor before choosing Virginia. The Cavaliers were going through a coaching change when Novakovic began looking for a new school – Smith, a former UVA assistant, took over for Dennis Hohenshelt in February 2017 – and she didn’t hear from them for a while.
“And then when Aaron contacted me, I was just really, really excited,” Novakovic said.
She’s carrying a double major, in history and economics, and is on track to graduate in December 2019. She’s comfortable academically and socially at the University and loves Charlottesville, where, when her schedule permits, she spends time with a local family that’s from Serbia. Novakovic even has discovered a store on West Main Street that carries snacks and sweets from Serbia.
“It was just so funny to find that,” Novakovic said.
She’s not the only Eastern European in the UVA athletic family. Her friends include a fellow Serbian, Teodora Radosavljevic, who was a senior on the women’s tennis team in 2017-18, and track & field athletes Marija Bogavac (Montenegro), Nace Plesko (Slovenia) and Eva Mustafic (Croatia), as well as Martin Maric (Croatia), who coaches the Cavaliers’ throwers.
“We kind of speak the same language, with little differences,” Novakovic said. “So when we have time, we hang out.”
Novakovic, whose father played handball professionally, started learning English when she was in first grade. She’s enjoyed learning about U.S. history, “because I did a lot of world history before in high school and I think I know a lot [about that] in general,” Novakovic said.
“Last semester I had African-American history and Native American history, so it was interesting to learn more about it, especially with the events that happened [in Charlottesville] last year. It was different for me, I guess, from an outside perspective.”
Much works remains for the volleyball team, but Novakovic is eager to help with the building project. At UVA, she’s found the balance she was looking for when she left Serbia in 2015.
“Here, I think I have the whole package,” she said.